Baishakhi Taylor, who began work as dean of the college and vice president for campus life on July 1, has been working with other campus leaders to find ways to engage students in the daily life of the college this fall, while maintaining the health of the community.
and the college’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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A Semester Like No Other
The first warning about the growing global threat of the COVID-19 virus was issued from President Kathleen McCartney’s office in late February: Any campus programs or travel in China and South Korea were being suspended; programming in other countries could be in jeopardy. As travel restrictions were mounting—and with spring break looming—the college announced it would waive student fees for those who wished to remain on campus during the weeklong break.
From there, the dominoes began falling rapidly. The spring bulb show abruptly closed on March 9, two days after it opened. The next day, students felt the full brunt of the growing crisis when they learned that in-person classes would end in three days; instead of signaling the start of spring break, Friday, March 13, would mark the end of most students’ time on campus for the rest of the semester. Only students who had no other option— primarily international students—could remain. The shock wave was immediate. As students left their classes that Tuesday afternoon, they gathered in small groups, crying and comforting each other. One professor said all classwork was abandoned during her three-hour lab so that students could grapple with the news.
Some students protested the decision, but opposition ended as the danger of contracting or spreading the virus became clear.
Once it was apparent that nothing about the spring semester would be normal, the class of 2020, which had so recently worn its graduation robes at Rally Day, responded decisively: They would not leave campus without a proper send-off. “Everyone was lamenting all the traditions we would be losing, and I just started saying, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s have a graduation,’” said Annika Jensen ’20, who led the effort to create a DIY ceremony. “We could yell our own names, walk across the steps and have a little pity party and some laughs before we had to part ways. From there, the event snowballed.”
At 6 p.m. that Thursday, several hundred seniors donned their robes again—this time with their caps—and staged a mock ceremony in front of Wilson House, complete with speeches from class officers and a Nancy Pelosi stand-in speech from Rosie Poku ’22. “When the sun began to set, I played ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ on the speaker, and the class of 2020 managed to graduate ourselves,” Jensen said. “The impromptu ceremony brought me a kind of closure I didn’t realize I was so desperately craving and reminded me of all the reasons I am so proud to be a part of the Smith community. We came together as a class … to find joy in that heartbreak.”
Before leaving, seniors fanned out across campus, taking group photos and selfies in front of the Grécourt Gates, on the banks of Paradise Pond, in front of their houses and under the giant elm tree on Chapin lawn.
For the college, the challenges ahead would require adaptability and continuing study by a COVID-19 Incident Response Team (CIRT).
As President McCartney said in an all-staff Zoom meeting, “Nothing is scarier than the unknown. But this is a resilient place and Smith will get through this.”
This story appears in the Summer 2020 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.